When serious floods roll in, great damage can occur to health and health care systems. This August, for example, monsoon season in Pakistan has resulted in flooded villages, lost livestock and forced evacuations – and along with the damage to physical structures, people in many regions of Pakistan are still contending with a lack of access to health care services, and facing the risks of disease that come along with monsoon floods.
One medical issue during monsoons, an issue that might come as a surprise, is snake bites. Firstly, rushing water will often force a snake out of its home and into an area more heavily populated by humans; disoriented and frightened, the animal will of course be more likely than normal to strike out in defense. During deadly monsoons in Bangladesh in 2007, the government reported that of the nation’s 226 fatalities, 35 were the result of fatal snake bites. The problem of venomous snakes is further compounded by the fact that during a flood, inhabitable space is more limited, and therefore snakes and humans are more likely to come into close contact than they would be under normal circumstances.
At the moment, the Punjab region especially is reporting higher-than-average numbers of snake bites, and Pakistan’s Jaffarabad area has recorded over 150 bites since the middle of July. To assist with the problem of snakes, the World Health Organization is providing vials of anti venoms, in hopes that bite-related illness and fatality can be stymied.
During a flood, a number of health problems will often result due to large groups of flood evacuees living in close quarters with one another. In the Naseerbad region of Pakistan, a WHO team has already identified six cases of measles, as well as one fatality. This news is frightening to health workers seeing as Pakistan is currently in the midst of a measles epidemic – thus far in 2013, WHO has identified around 30,000 cases of the disease, which is a marked worsening from last year’s numbers when 15,000 cases were found. Much of the reason for Pakistan’s measles epidemic relates to badly implemented vaccine programs, and so WHO is at the moment working to provide more immunizations to Pakistanis who have been displaced by the flooding and are therefore at greater risk to spread or contract the disease. WHO has also been encouraging the distribution of vitamin A drops, as this vitamin can improve immune response against measles.
Of course, health officials are also concerned about potential outbreaks of water borne diseases; malaria and dengue fever, for example. Although neither of these diseases has yet presented a widespread threat to flood victims in Pakistan, health workers worry that large areas of still water may eventually bring more mosquitoes to the area. Mosquitoes are attracted to those sorts of water pools, and will often use that still water to lay their larvae. With more mosquitoes comes a greater risk of both malaria and dengue fever, and so the World Health Organization is implementing important precautions now in order to avoid an epidemic later.
Water is also of concern to health care workers in terms of drinking water. Already, the Public Health Engineering Department in Pakistan has arranged for large tankards of clean water to be delivered to communities where water supplies have been affected by floods, and technical support is being offered to help local people conduct disinfection and chlorination works. Contaminated water poses many health risks: its consumption will easily lead to diarrhea and dehydration, typhoid, and skin and eye infections. Unfortunately, heavy rains and floods during monsoon season can often cause a sewage overflow and a resulting contamination of water normally used for drinking and bathing. Along with getting clean water to affected areas and disinfecting water when possible, health care workers in Pakistan are also aiming to provide education and awareness training so that field staff can advise flood victims on what water is safe to drink and how to avoid contaminated sources in the aftermath of a flood.
When heavy flooding occurs, another health care problem is that many residents are stranded and therefore cannot seek out necessary health services. In Pakistan, roads have washed away and villages have been inundated with water; the result of which is that many families have chosen to stay put, even if that means being miles away from the nearest clinic. At that point, the struggle for health care workers is finding access to people who might need care but cannot seek it; and at the moment, temporary roadside health posts are being set up to provide care for as many people as possible, and authorities are monitoring which areas are still in need of improved health services.
The National Disaster Management Authority has estimated that the immediate effects of flooding in Pakistan could reach up to 1 million people. Unfortunately, more damages may be approaching: over 300,000 acres of crops have already been damaged by the monsoon, and that kind of widespread destruction could mean dangers to the nutrition, health and livelihood of communities for many months to come. With around 10,000 houses destroyed, the health issues arising from evacuee camps could continue as well. The World Health Organization, along with a number of Pakistani health groups – including local health departments and other municipal organizations – will no doubt continue offering support and services to combat those health issues brought about by heavy flooding.